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Pandemic accelerates race to preserve Native American languages

Posted at 3:19 PM, Feb 16, 2021

Even before the pandemic, it was a race against time to preserve Native American languages across the country. COVID-19 has accelerated this.

The Cherokee Nation has had more than 30 of its 2,000 fluent speakers pass away during the pandemic. They've made sure Cherokee language speakers received the COVID-19 vaccine first.

Other tribes have been prioritizing native speakers as well.

The Language Conservancy is one group working to revitalize native languages.

“It’s basically taken what might have given us another five years with the language, has now decreased it to maybe just a year or two before the last speakers pass on. And so, it's taken basically really a terrible crisis and created a whole other tragedy on top of it,” said Wil Meya, Executive Director at The Language Conservancy.

Just in the last six to 12 months, at least 30 of the speakers they've worked with personally have passed away. They've taken their efforts virtual, so they can continue in the pandemic.

That includes the teacher training and teaching young people native languages that usually happens in person. It's been happening over Zoom instead.

They say the positive from all this is they've been able to have people from all over the country, even the world, participate.

“Languages are, you know, an essential part of a community's identity and their health, and so we have this expression in the work we do that language is healing and for many young people, the relearning of their language is an effort to come to terms with the trauma of the past and try to move forward in a positive way,” said Meya.

The nonprofit has also pivoted to how it creates native language dictionaries.

Typically, it works in person with elders over two weeks. Now, they're putting laptops with a microphone and a recording setup on some reservations.

“We set up Zoom and we remote desktop into that machine and the linguist or the person who does the transcriber works with the elder just like you and I are talking over Zoom,” said Meya.

Currently, these remote dictionary efforts are happening in Montana with the Crow language, and in southern Colorado with the Ute dialect. They'll be expanding to parts of Canada in the coming months.